NATO should cut its losses in Ukraine
Give Russia some, but not all, of what it wants
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If Afghanistan was the international crisis which defined 2021, then it looks like 2022 is going to be remembered as the Year of Ukraine. The Russian government has amassed about 100,000 troops on the borders of Ukraine and seems to be preparing an invasion which some U.S. intelligence analysts believe could come in early 2022. At the same time, Vladimir Putin has presented a list of demands which he wants the United States and NATO to accede to in order to avoid an invasion. These include that NATO reverse its promise to eventually admit Ukraine (and Georgia) to NATO, a demand which Western officials dismiss as politically impossible.
This is all a big deal not only because it poses one of the most direct challenges to European security since the end of the Cold War, but also because it is raising the tension between the Washington and Russia, probably the only country which has the capability to wipe the United States from the face of the Earth. Some commentators such as Carl Bildt have suggested that NATO directly commit itself to militarily defend Ukraine, but American officials wisely dismiss this possibility. This raises a question: if NATO isn’t going to actually defend Ukraine but it also refuses to accept Russia’s demands, then what is it going to do?
It seems to me that Western officials, including the Biden administration, don’t really have a convincing answer. But they have basically two options. The first is to allow Russia to invade Ukraine, plunging Western-Russian relations to a new low and dramatically ratcheting up the chances of a broader confrontation, as well as causing immense destruction to Ukraine. The second option is to change their tune about the place that Ukraine occupies in NATO’s strategy and try to reach a negotiated settlement which transforms the country into a kind of buffer state, tamping down long-term tensions. Such a course of action would be a blow to NATO’s “credibility”, would be compared to the Allied capitulation to Hitler at Munich, and would be an abandonment of NATO’s partial commitments to Ukraine. But as much as it pains me to write, over the course of this year I have come to think that it is the only way forward.
Russian military equipment lined up at Voronzeh, near the Ukrainian border
One damn thing after another
Firstly, we need to remember how we got here. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Ukraine declared its independence from Russia and became an independent state. Of all of the successor states in the former Soviet sphere, Ukraine’s post-independence relationship with Moscow was one of the most complex, for at least two reasons.
The first was that Ukraine has long been viewed in Russia as the historic cradle of Russian civilization and the site of the first Russian state, Kievan Rus’. This gave it a special place in Russia’s calculations, and many Russians do not accept the legitimacy of an independent Ukrainian state. Putin expressed this idea in an article he wrote earlier this year which is worth quoting at length, because it illustrates the Russian view that Ukraine cannot remain a separate state:
I am confident that true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia. Our spiritual, human and civilizational ties formed for centuries and have their origins in the same sources, they have been hardened by common trials, achievements and victories. Our kinship has been transmitted from generation to generation. It is in the hearts and the memory of people living in modern Russia and Ukraine, in the blood ties that unite millions of our families. Together we have always been and will be many times stronger and more successful. For we are one people.
The second reason that Ukraine’s independence was tricky was because it had on its territory a large portion of the Soviet nuclear arsenal. Given Russia’s historic view of Ukraine as a sort of wayward little brother, Kiev was naturally reluctant to give these weapons up. But in 1994, the leaders of Russia, the United States, the United Kingdom and Ukraine signed a document called the Budapest Memorandum to give Ukraine the security guarantees it needed to give up its nuclear weapons. That same year, it did just that.
The Budapest Memorandum was an interesting document which laid out the sort of conditions which were arguably necessary to turn Ukraine into a useful buffer between NATO and Russia. Firstly, it committed its signatories to preserving the independence and territorial integrity of Ukraine. Secondly, although it didn’t formally commit Ukraine to neutrality, it did oblige the signatories to not pressure or coerce Kiev into joining one camp or the other in the post-Cold War world. These principles underwrote an uneasy detente throughout the 1990s and 2000s.
New York Times OTD @OnThisDayNYTThe front page #OTD in 1987. The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty is signed in Washington, D.C. by President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. #nytimes https://t.co/ngGrH4Lr7z
But as relations between Russia and NATO got worse throughout the 2000s, Ukraine came back into the spotlight. Most contentious was a decision taken at a 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest to provide an eventual path to NATO membership for both Ukraine and Georgia, another post-Soviet country on the Russian periphery. This summit resulted in a horrible agreement (negotiated by the British - thanks guys) whereby Ukraine and Georgia wouldn’t be offered a concrete and immediate path to membership but would be given the assurance that eventually they could join, at some undetermined point in the future. This was a compromise between the hawks in the Bush administration who wanted to push NATO eastwards and the many other NATO governments who didn’t want Ukraine (or Georgia) to join. Moscow failed to note the subtlety and, taking Bucharest as a direct threat, invaded Georgia shortly afterwards.
Things took a bit longer to come to a head in Ukraine, but in 2014 the pro-Moscow government of Viktor Yanukovych was driven from office by a protest movement, and the successor government sought to improve ties with the West, raising the possibility that Kiev’s quest to join NATO might become more concrete. In response, Putin launched the now well-known annexation of Crimea and sent the Russian military to support proxy militias in other areas of eastern Ukraine. Although a peace agreement was eventually reached, it has never been fully implemented, and the conflict settled down into an uneasy status quo of sporadic fighting which continued until the latest Russian threat of invasion.
The options now
This history has left Ukraine in a strange, partial relationship with NATO. On the one hand, Ukraine is not a member of NATO and NATO countries have no formal obligation to defend it. It is also widely understood - but not stated explicitly - that Ukraine will never join NATO, because allowing it to do so would be a red line for Russia and possibly plunge the alliance into a nuclear war. On the other hand, NATO considers Ukraine a “highly valued partner” which receives all kinds of military assistance from members, particularly the United States.
This set of circumstances has evolved over time in response to messy compromises, and it pleases precisely no-one. Russia is infuriated by NATO’s relationship with Ukraine, particularly the military assistance, and by the hypothetical promise of future membership. Western countries are left with a halfway-house of a commitment to a country which they have no intention of actually defending, leaving them perpetually threatened by a massive loss of credibility. And Ukraine is caught in the middle, unable to defend itself and waiting for a more stable and secure situation which the Western countries ultimately have no intention of providing.
Indeed, while NATO countries have been amping up their rhetoric in response to Russia’s latest military build-up, the actual threats they are leveling demonstrate just how weak their commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and independence actually is. Earlier this month, the Biden administration laid out the measures he would take in the event of a Russian invasion:
Impose “devastating” (but largely unspecified) economic consequences on Russia through sanctions - although the administration has ruled out cutting Russia off from the international banking system, something which would do serious harm to the Russian economy but which Moscow once described as tantamount to “a declaration of war”.
Reinforce NATO’s eastern members by sending more U.S. forces there.
Send further military assistance to Ukraine - and in the event of a Russian invasion, Ukrainian forces will begin deploying Javelin anti-tank missiles which pose a serious threat to Russian armor.
Cancellation of Nord Stream 2, the controversial gas pipeline leading from Russia to Germany.
That was it.
Another complication is that there seems to be little consensus between the United States and European allies about the desirability of even these measures. Secretary of State Tony Blinken left a meeting with G7 countries earlier this week without securing a statement representing a joint allied position, a telling omission.
Cut your losses
By now, everyone has their cards pretty firmly on the table. Russia has stated its list of demands, and the Biden administration has laid down its own position. The key Western European powers have been less clear, but it seems likely that - as during the annexation of Crimea - they will be less hawkish than Washington, not more. What happens next is that the two sides get together and try to negotiate a way out. And that’s exactly what will happen next week, when Assistant Secretary of State Karen Donfried travels to Russia and Europe.
Compromise - cutting your losses - is often anathema to the Washington foreign policy establishment, which is über-sensitive to any perceived loss of American “credibility”, or any sign that the old hegemon ain’t so hegemonic no more.
But avoiding having to compromise ultimately means putting your geopolitical muscle where your mouth is, and that is something that the U.S. is just not going to do in Ukraine. The foreign policy and internal governing arrangements of Ukraine matter more to Russia than they do to America, everyone knows this, and there’s only so long you can hold back the inevitable. That’s why I think that the only sensible path for Washington is to stop trying to.
This would mean, first and foremost, acknowledging that Ukraine will never be a part of NATO. Ukraine’s supposed future path to NATO membership is a provocation without a purpose. It is absurd to allow such a contentious sticking point to remain in place when at the same time all informed observers agree that membership will never happen.
The arguments against this position are rarely explicitly stated, but they usually boil down to (a) Russia cannot be allowed to dictate sovereign Ukraine’s choices; (b) rescinding the membership offer would constitute a severe blow to NATO’s credibility and might threaten the alliance’s existence more broadly. Let’s deal with these in turn.
It is true that, in an ideal world, power politics would no longer exist, and large countries would no longer be able to dictate the foreign policy of smaller ones. This, however, is not the world that even the United States, which frequently coerces and pressures smaller states, lives in. During the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, the United States didn’t sit back and say “well, it’s Cuba’s sovereign choice to host Soviet missiles, so I guess there’s nothing we can do about that”. It is just a fact of international life that less-powerful countries have their choices in some way constrained by their more-powerful neighbors (just ask Mexico or Canada). In a sense the United States is trying to alter this force of geopolitical gravity in its dealings with Ukraine, but it is doing so without actually being willing to use its own powers of coercion to constrain Russia’s choices.
There is, of course, an important moral element to this. I am not blind to the suffering that will be imposed on Ukrainians if their country falls into the orbit of Russia. But that suffering has to be weighed against two additional factors. The first is that removing the ever-present threat of war from Ukraine through a negotiated agreement is likely to be a large net benefit for Ukrainians. The second is that the moral stakes here do not just involve Ukrainians - they also involve the tens of millions of people who stand to lose their lives in the event of nuclear war between Russia and NATO.
Here is where the issue of the “credibility” of NATO becomes crucial. Some argue that to retreat from Ukraine would harm NATO’s credibility and invite further Russian aggression, perhaps against Poland or the Baltic states. I have completely the reverse view. What undermines NATO’s credibility is its over-extension into a partial relationship with a country it ultimately has no intention of sticking with when the going gets tough. Nothing will harm NATO’s credibility more than its members swearing themselves to the defense of a foreign state and then doing nothing as Russian tanks rolls over its borders.
In a sense the damage is already done here, and the only remaining question for NATO is how to unwind a commitment which it has unwisely taken on. But better this process be done deliberately and carefully, and combined with a clear statement that NATO is re-committing itself to its core mission of defending members. Alliances are supposed to form a clear, thick line around their members: on the inside you get protected, on the outside you’re on your own. Reaffirming the existence of that line would not be a bad thing for the NATO alliance or its “credibility”.
Ultimately, it’s important to remember the stakes, which are that if Russia and NATO get into a war, it could ultimately escalate to the nuclear level and deal a civilizational setback to the human species. The member-states of NATO are the ones that the United States has pledged to take that risk for, not Ukraine. All else stems from that, and it suggests that it is time for the U.S. to cut its losses.
The shape of a deal
As I was nearly finished writing this, Russia published its list of demands in the upcoming negotiations with NATO. If you click on the tweet below then you can see Russia and nuclear expert Andrey Baklitskiy explain the details, which is something I’m not going to get bogged down with here. Many of the Russian demands are absurd, particularly ones that demand a general pull-back and redeployment of NATO forces and nuclear weapons within Europe. It’s not possible to know what the Kremlin really intends as a serious demand and what is just a smokescreen, and the only way you find that out is through negotiation. That’s for the negotiators, not a Substacker.
But what seems clear to me, speaking of general principles, is that the U.S. should not consider it anathema to give Russia what seems to be at least one of its central demands: a pledge that NATO will no longer expand eastwards, including to Ukraine. Additionally, it should seek terms which will see Ukraine given the status of a buffer state, with the understanding that neither Russia nor NATO will deploy their armed forces there, seek a military alliance with Kiev, or violate its territorial integrity. In exchange, Russia should promise to withdraw its support for the separatists in Donbas, but be allowed to keep Crimea, which contains the major Russian strategic asset of Sevastopol and which was, until 1954, an integral part of Russia.
Note that much of this agreement simply accepts facts of the situation which are already widely accepted. Ukraine will never join NATO. Russia will never return Crimea to Ukraine. But in addition, the agreement cools tensions and gives both sides something new that they want and restructures the U.S.-Russian relationship in a way more likely to promote, though of course not ensure, harmony rather than friction.
The United States would remove a major irritant in its relations with Russia and be able to focus on reasserting NATO’s core mission of self-defense. It would also save face by not having to stand by as Russia overruns eastern Ukraine, nor experience a dramatic and dangerous new downward spiral in relations with Moscow. The agreement would come with some loss of face, and some domestic costs for the Biden administration, though less than an invasion would. But unfortunately that is the price a great power pays for having overextended itself.
Russia, meanwhile, would receive a long-cherished aim, plus whatever security guarantees it could negotiate on the side. But it would also avoid having to actually follow through on a renewed invasion of Ukraine, something which would severely tax its economy and military while bringing few concrete benefits. If Putin is really an ideologue who longs to see Ukraine territorially reunited with Mother Russia, then I am wrong. But if he isn’t, then he probably doesn’t want to pay the costs of a grinding occupation of a hostile, densely-populated and heavily-armed foreign country. Nor does he, ultimately, want to live in a state of perpetual fear of nuclear war by raising tensions with NATO so dramatically.
Can this deal be done? I’m not actually that optimistic. The potential for miscalculation by one of the states involved, and for me to be wrong about part of this, is high. But there is at least a chance a deal can be done, and that can only happen if the United States enters the negotiations willing to give something up. Luckily, what Washington is being asked to give up - a phantom promise to a perpetually-embattled state - is something that America is better off without anyway. So let’s talk on - after all, jaw jaw is better than war war.